Wednesday, May 2, 2012

20th Anniversary: The Reading Room’s Depression-Era Predecessor

Photo: NYPL 

Whether referred to as an “Open Air Library” or a “Reading Room”, the idea of offering visitors to Bryant Park the free use of newspapers, magazines, and books, was a logical one. After all, the park was named after a man who was a poet and a publisher, and it lies adjacent to one of the most famous libraries in the world, the magnificent New York Public Library. In fact, the park has had two incarnations of such a place – today’s Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC , and, beginning back in the 1930’s, the first Bryant Park Open Air Library.

The first free reading outpost at Bryant Park was instituted in August 1935, just about one year after the renovation was directed by then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. The Open Air Library was directed by “Miss Ruth Wellman”, superintendent of NYPL’s extension division, staffed by workers from the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, and stocked with books supplied by NYPL and magazines donated by merchants and citizens. Its very existence was a frank comment on the times: it was meant to provide out-of-work businessmen and intellectual workers a place to read for free. It originally consisted of several benches, book and magazine racks, and five beach umbrellas for the staff, who worked six days a week from mid-morning until mid-evening.

Photo: Daily News

An article in the New York Times about the first day was not given to optimism about the venture: ‘Park Sitters Shun Open-Air Library’ ran the title. The body of the article explained how park visitors were satisfied with their own newspapers, and didn’t rush the table to take out books. The indefatigable Miss Williams was described as directing her staff to fan out over the park to spread the word that free reading materials were available. In an interesting aside, a snickering on-duty police was quoted as wondering just how many books would be “borrowed permanently.” To which the WPA aides responded, in unison: “The civic responsibility of New York’s citizens was all the assurance one needed of the volumes’ safety.” Those were wise words, and the aides’ faith was justified by an extremely low “missing” rate throughout the Open Air Library’s history.

The Open Air Library was a success for its time. At a 1940 celebration marking its fifth anniversary, NYPL Director Harry M. Lydenberg told the NY Times that 350,000 park visitors had borrowed the facility’s 400 books and 1,000 magazines. 1940 was the last full peacetime year in the U.S. for a half-decade. With World War II came conscription and full employment, and the very rationale for creating the original Open Air Library disappeared: there were very few people with nothing to do. It closed quietly after the 1944 season. It would not be until 2003 that the idea to bring this wonderful institution back to the park became reality.

For more information on the park's transformation, read posts from our 20th Anniversary Series

This is an excerpt from a series of articles on the transformation of Bryant Park from our weekly newsletter, MidCity Newswritten by Terry Benoit. MidCity News keeps park enthusiasts informed about our events, milestones, operations, and all of the detailed maintenance work that goes into caring for the park. Weekly updates are sent with our sister organizations 34th Street Partnership and Chelsea Improvement Company

You can view this most recent edition of MidCity News online, or sign up to receive it in your inbox. 

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